Great article written By Dave Deibert-
LAS VEGAS — Dana White wants to conquer the world.
From his office a few blocks off the famed Las Vegas Strip, he plots his strategy and maps out his plans for global domination. As president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, it’s his job to sell the ever-growing, controversial, hugely popular sport of mixed-martial-arts to the masses.
One day, he’s preparing for UFC’s venture into Canada (a sellout in Montreal for UFC 83 last April). Another day, he’s getting ready for the company’s foray into Ireland (a sellout for UFC 93 earlier this month), England (a sellout at UFC 70 in 2007) or Germany (the site of UFC 99 this June). In late 2008, he was prepping for UFC 91 and UFC 92, both of which would surpass one million buys on pay-per-view, numbers previously reserved for names like De La Hoya and Tyson.
On his, uh, quiet days, White will merely make dozens of phone calls to network executives, cable company representatives, state commissioners, reporters, fighters and their managers.
“Every once in a while I see him catching a nap in his office (but) he’s constantly promoting, constantly working at it,” says Marc Ratner, the influential former Nevada State Athletic Commission Director who went from UFC critic to lobbyist for the company.
Some call White, 40, the new Vince McMahon, creative force behind World Wrestling Entertainment. (Is that a compliment or condemnation?) Much like McMahon, White is brash, bold and outspoken, but also undeniably a world-class promoter.
And, like McMahon, White — a former fight manager and boxercise instructor; a current husband and father of three; shaved head, easy smile, and apparent inability to go more than five minutes without uttering at least one curse word — dreams big. Bigger. Biggest.
“I know people think I’m a ****ing lunatic when I say this, but I’m telling you: (mixed-martial-arts is) going to be the biggest sport in the world,” says White.
“Bigger than the NFL, bigger than soccer, bigger than anything out there.
“When you think about it, in this country right now, there’s nothing bigger than the NFL. The NFL is huge. But the NFL can’t go into other countries. Nobody gives a **** about football in England or Germany or any of these other places . . . They don’t understand the rules: Punt, pass, kick, fourth down. They don’t get it and there’s no investment in any of the teams. They don’t give a **** what the L.A. Raiders are doing or what the New York Jets do. It doesn’t mean anything to them. Now I don’t care what country you come from, what colour you are or what language you speak; at the end of the day we’re all human beings and fighting is in our DNA. We like it. We get it. It doesn’t have to be explained to us.”
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UFC, and the sport of mixed martial arts, may not exist today if it wasn’t for Playboy magazine. But because someone actually bought an issue for the articles, a phenomenon began.
The reader: Advertising executive Art Davie. The story was titled ‘Bad.’ The subject: Rorian Gracie.
Rorian had come to Los Angeles from Brazil, where the Gracie name was legendary. Taking a fighting style that traces back to the original creation of judo, Helio Gracie early in the 20th century famously turned what he was taught into Gracie jiu jitsu, a style based around the premise that most fights end up on the ground. He mastered the arts of body positioning, submissions and chokes.
For years, the Gracies took on anyone, anywhere to defend the family name. The Gracie Challenge, they called it. (Carlos Gracie once took out an ad in a newspaper: “If you want a broken arm or your face smashed, contact Carlos Gracie.”) Determined to bring the Gracie gospel to the world, Rorian Gracie moved to the United States. He got work choreographing fight scenes in Hollywood and teaching students Gracie jiu jitsu, but it wasn’t until Davie read the Playboy story and watched Gracies in Action videos that Rorian’s grand vision would have an outlet.
Davie, Rorion Gracie, Hollywood director John Milius and Bob Meyrowitz of Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG) came up with ‘War of the Worlds.’ They got on pay-per-view with a simple concept: Who would win between a boxer or karate black belt? Wrestler or jiu jitsu artist? Street fighter or judo master?
Rather than fighting in a traditional ring, these matches would take place in eight-sided cage. The event would be an eight-man, one-night tournament highlighting a variety of fighting styles. Oh, and there was a small name change. ‘War of the Worlds’ just didn’t cut it, but ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ sure had a nice ring.
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The first match at UFC 1 — Nov. 12, 1993 at Denver’s McNichols Arena — didn’t last long, but it provided a long-lasting image: The tooth of 400-pound sumo wrestler Teila Tuli flying into the crowd after a round kick courtesy Gerard Gordeau.
Others remember Ken Shamrock being booed after he made Patrick Smith submit to a heel hook; the fans were so uneducated, they had no idea what happened. They wanted blood, not some grappling nonsense. Some remember seeing Art Jimmerson, a top-ranked boxer, fighting with a boxing glove on his left hand (but being so clueless about any other styles that once he was taken to the mat, he submitted before his opponent had attempted any offensive moves).
Jimmerson’s opponent? Royce Gracie. The skinniest, most meek looking of the eight competitors made the rest of the field look foolish. Needing a combined five minutes to win his three matches (each by submission), the chosen representative of the Gracie clan was light years ahead of the field.
Not only was the night a rousing success for the family in what amounted to a modern-day Gracie Challenge, it drew roughly 86,000 pay-per-view buys, an amazing number for the company considering it had no television and a minuscule marketing budget.
Gracie returned and won tournaments at both UFC 2 and UFC 4. Ken Shamrock, who had made his name in the Pancrase promotion in Japan, was a good-looking, charismatic rival. Other colourful characters — Kimo Leopoldo, a ripped 240-pounder who carried a massive cross on his back to the ring at UFC 3; Dan Severn, the All-American wrestler who debuted at UFC 4 — came and went. Built around a superfight between Royce Gracie and Shamrock, UFC 5 drew 260,000 pay-per-view buys. The company was rolling and people were talking.
But not all the chatter was positive.
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United States Sen. John McCain is known now as (a) the runner-up to Barack Obama in the presidential election; or, (b) the old guy who kept making cameos on Saturday Night Live. But to UFC fans in the 1990s, he was Public Enemy No. 1.
During its early days, in its attempt to gain any public attention, UFC played up the violence, blood and gore. Among the taglines used: ‘There Are No Rules!’ ‘The Most Controversial Event of the Decade!’ ‘Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves!’ While fans flocked to UFC, it also drew the ire of conservative media and politicians.
A campaign was brewing to restore decency to TV and music in America, and UFC was an easy target. In 1996, McCain wrote a letter to the governors of all 50 states, famously referring to the sport as “human cockfighting” and imploring all states to ban “ultimate fighting.”
“When I was a critic, it was because they had no rules, anything goes,” Ratner said in a recent interview.
“I said, this was over 10 years ago, we would never allow the sport, the spectacle at that time, into the state of Nevada with no rules and no holds barred.”
The challenges were soon mounting. It took a huge legal effort just to put on UFC 9 in Detroit. Political pressure in the state of New York resulted in the sport being banned and the company having to move UFC 12 from Niagara Falls to Alabama. Soon, 36 states had heeded McCain’s call.
The biggest blow came courtesy pay-per-view companies. Just days after UFC 12 in February 1997, TCI stopped carrying UFC events (wiping out 14 million potential buyers). Soon after, Time Warner (with 12 million subscribers) stopped offering UFC. Viewers Choice was out, as well. In the blink of an eye, UFC went from a thriving company to entering what has become known as its ‘dark years.’
Pay-per-view buys plummeted. The company’s big stars — Mark Coleman, Ken Shamrock, Tank Abbott — took bigger money offers in pro wrestling or from promotions in Japan. UFC 23 through UFC 29 weren’t even released on home video. Costs were cut everywhere the company could.
UFC legend Chuck Liddell recalled in his autobiography, Iceman: My Fighting Life, his memories of his debut at UFC 17 in May 1998: “When we had weigh-ins, they used a bathroom scale . . . This was the UFC I had been training for?”
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Perception had become reality for UFC.
Everything that first got UFC attention was now coming back to bite its owners, SEG. UFC and mixed-martial-arts (which replaced ‘no-holds-barred’ as the official term for the sport) were tainted.
“It’s still haunting,” says Ratner. “Some of those same concerns (still) come up . . . In 1995, ’96, when they advertised no-holds-barred, anything goes, no rules, that certainly is not the sport it is today. But it’s about education and going over what the sport’s about now.”
Dana White spins a yarn about how SEG ran from state sanctioning and wanted to continue promoting a ‘no-holds-barred’ sport. Nothing could be further from the truth. Working with athletic commissions, UFC and SEG made countless rules changes, including introducing weight classes at UFC 12; making four-ounce fingerless gloves mandatory at UFC 14; making headbutts and groin strikes illegal at UFC 15; and implementing five-minute rounds at UFC 21. Still, the company couldn’t get back on pay-per-view and was bleeding money.
By the time the New Jersey commission created the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts in September 2000, it was too late for SEG. International Fighting Championships promoted the first sanctioned event in New Jersey, and SEG followed weeks later with UFC 28. But after UFC 29, SEG couldn’t stay afloat.
Enter Dana White, who informed childhood friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta that UFC was up for grabs. The brothers had made their money in casinos and this was a gamble they couldn’t pass up, so for $2 million they purchased UFC and began operating it under their newly-created company, Zuffa LLC (Zuffa translates to ‘fight’ in Italian).
Hopes were sky-high, but prospects soon looked as promising for Zuffa as they did for SEG. Despite the sport being sanctioned in Nevada in 2001; the company regaining home video distribution; and a Ken Shamrock-Tito Ortiz main event at UFC 40 drawing 150,000 pay-per-view buys, by 2004, Zuffa had lost $34 million.
The Fertittas were ready to tap out, and told White to find a buyer. An offer was even on the table. But a change of heart kept the company in the hands of Zuffa and a change of approach would soon turn the company’s fortunes around for good.
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It seems appropriate that a promotion billing itself ‘as real as it gets’ would be saved by reality TV.
In a last-ditch attempt to jump-start UFC’s fortunes, a reality TV program was launched in January 2005 that would follow 16 fighters living together and trying to earn a UFC contract. The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) was a smash success.
“We got on TV and suddenly people were watching mixed martial arts without realizing they were watching it, because they got caught up in the storylines,” White said in a 2006 interview with Playboy magazine. “You also get to learn about the characters and see that these guys aren’t a bunch of ****ing gorillas who just rolled in off a bar stool. You can see how hard they train and that they have real lives and families.”
The main event of the season’s live finale has been called the biggest moment in UFC history. On a Spike TV special, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar went toe-to-toe for three rounds in a real-life Rocky movie, and the audience was left breathless.
“I can say after that fight, it helped make martial arts cool, a cool thing to do,” says Bonnar, who lost a decision to Griffin.
Just as the company’s fortunes hit the skids almost overnight in 1997, the rise back to the top was equally meteoric in 2005. After hovering for years in the 50,000-75,000 range for PPV buys, UFC 52 in April 2005 drew 280,000 buys for a Randy Couture-Chuck Liddell main event. Within 18 months, UFC 66, headlined by a Chuck Liddell-Tito Ortiz main event, drew 1,050,000 buys.
UFC had found a spot in the mainstream. Sports Illustrated devoted a cover story to the company. ESPN provided regular coverage. TV ratings eclipsed Major League Baseball and the NBA in the key 18-to-34-year-old demographic. With MMA currently sanctioned in 37 of 50 U.S. states — New York and Massachusetts being notable exceptions, along with Ontario and B.C. in Canada — companies like Bud Light and Harley-Davidson became major sponsors.
The world was introduced to Rich Franklin, a former high school math teacher; Georges St-Pierre, who routinely shows up to press conferences in Dolce & Gabbana suits; Randy Couture, an ageless wonder nicknamed ‘Captain America’; Chuck Liddell, an accounting major in college with a mohawk and tattoos on his skull; and Anderson Silva, the Brazilian considered as unbeatable as Mike Tyson in his prime.
Fans became more educated, responding almost as much to slick wrestling and submissions as vicious fistwork. More and more, critics got past their harrowing first impressions. UFC officials make a valid argument that MMA is safer and less violent than boxing. In MMA, for instance, you can avoid hundreds of shots to the skull by taking an opponent down to the mat, throwing leg kicks or grappling with them, and by finishing a match in a method other than knockout. White also theorizes the NFL is far more violent. He may have a point; the average NFL career lasts just 3.5 years.
“I always believed in this thing and always thought we could get there,” says White.
“It’s just a matter of, was the timing right? Are things going to line up and go the way that they should?”
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Jan. 31, 2009 will be the latest in a seemingly endless string of success stories for UFC.
More than 14,000 fans from around the globe will pack the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Vegas and watch Canada’s Georges St-Pierre defend his welterweight title against BJ Penn. Many will have paid $750 for ringside seats (or more, if they went through scalpers). White expects at least 1,000,000 households in North America will pay another $50 to watch the event on pay-per-view.
“When it’s happening in the moment . . . me and Lorenzo look at each other, we high five each other, and you get the goosebumps,” says White. “There is nothing on earth like it.”
For years, when fans talked about ‘the big fight’, they usually meant boxing. Now, more often than not, they’re referring to UFC. In 2008, the company generated nearly $300 million in pay-per-view revenue to shatter the single-year standard of $260 million set by WWE in 2001, and top boxing’s best of $255 million in ’07.
Ratner said leaving his regulatory position in Nevada to come to UFC was hard, “but to be on the ground floor of a new sport is really the big thing. None of us can say we were there when they started or hockey or when they started baseball or football.
“Here we are, this sport is just barely 15 years old and we’re growing it. We’re working globally to make it bigger and bigger. That’s a pretty nice thing to be able to say in your lifetime, as part of your legacy, that you helped a sport grow.”
As MMA has grown, challengers to UFC’s crown have popped up. Some — Elite XC (with Internet-made sensation Kimbo Slice), International Fight League and Bodog — disappeared quickly. Pride FC, a Japanese company, was UFC’s biggest rival until its business went into the tank after ties to Japan’s mafia were revealed; UFC promptly bought Pride for a reported $70 million. Affliction Entertainment is UFC’s current challenger, although that company has struggled to turn a profit in its first two pay-per-view events.
For now, UFC remains the undisputed king. That’s the way White likes it, but he’s not content. Far from it.
“Obviously I’m happy that everything’s worked out the way it is, but I don’t really sit back and look at it. There’s so much more work to do,” says White.
“The crazy thing about this sport is, we haven’t even scratched the surface on how big this thing’s going to be.”
A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MIXED MARTIAL ARTS
– The sport is not ‘ultimate fighting.’ It’s mixed-martial-arts — a combination of wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, Muay Thai and other styles. To call MMA ‘ultimate fighting’ is like calling tissue ‘Kleenex.’ Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the No. 1 promotion in MMA, but ‘ultimate fighting’ is not the sport itself.
– If you think it should be illegal, it probably is. There are no head butts; no hitting in the groin, throat, spine or back of the head; no knees or kicks to the head of a downed opponent; no fishhooking, hair pulling or eye gouging.
– Competitors must wear four-ounce, open-fingered gloves. Fighters are also only allowed to wear MMA shorts and kickboxing trunks; shirts, gis and shoes are not allowed. They are routinely tested for steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, plus illegal recreational drugs.
– Matches generally end in one of four ways: knockout, referee stoppage, submission or judges’ decision.
– The cage in which UFC matches are contested is an eight-sided structure with walls of metal chain-link fence. The diameter of the cage is 38 feet, while the fence is roughly 5-foot-9 high. Other promotions — Affliction, most notably — contest matches inside a traditional roped-off ring.